When it comes to professional wrestling, just because you’re a good guy, it doesn’t mean the fans are on your side (just ask John Cena). You’ve either got it or you don’t, and wrestling history is littered with babyfaces that nobody believed in. But when you’ve got it, you’ve got it, and the ones who had that intangible something that transcended in-ring ability and mic skills are the ones that earned the love and respect of the crowd.
Say your prayers, take your vitamins, and run wild with our list of 25 good guys, from Antonino Rocca to The Rock, and from the WWWF to the WWE, who changed the face of professional wrestling!
25. Jerry “The King” Lawler
Long before he was making awful jokes and turning into one of the lamest color commentators today, Jerry Lawler was the “King of Memphis Wrestling.” Everyone loves the hometown boy. And when the hometown boy is owner of the company and makes himself the top guy, how can the crowd not love him? Outside of Memphis for years, Lawler generally played the heel. But whenever someone stepped into Memphis, “The King” would be there to defend the people of the city. His feud with Andy Kaufman in the early ‘80s helped cement him as a champion of Memphis, and defender of wrestling. And now another generation sees him as a good guy…but with terrible jokes who is useless in today’s “sports entertainment” world.
24. Kerry Von Erich
Standing at 6′ 2” and weighing in at just over 250 lbs., Kerry Von Erich was one of the most impressive wrestlers of his generation. With movie star good looks and the most intimidating physique of any member of his famous family, “The Modern Day Warrior” seemed built for greatness. Though “The Texas Tornado” would hold the WWF Intercontinental Championship in 1990 and the WCWA World Title 4 times in the late 80s, no accomplishment ever outshone his victory over Ric Flair for the NWA World Heavyweight Title in 1984. The victory, a tribute his brother David, took place in front of 45,000 fans at Texas Stadium and affirmed the hometown hero as a national star.
In 1986, Kerry’s right foot was amputated after a serious motorcycle accident. Thankfully still able to continue with his career, this accident unfortunately led to an addiction to pain killers that would haunt Von Erich until his untimely passing.
23. Junkyard Dog
After making a name for himself in southern territories, Junkyard Dog came to the WWF and quickly became a fan-favorite. What made JYD so popular and likeable was that he was tough without being threatening or mean. Half of his promos and interviews were him jive-talkin’ about I-don’t-know-what, but nonetheless he got his point across that he wasn’t afraid of any one, and kids admired him. As proof of his good-guy status, JYD would even bring kids in the ring to dance with him after matches and he was featured as one of the good guys on Hulk Hogan’s Rock n’ Wrestling cartoon. And I can’t neglect to mention his cover of Captain Chameleon’s “Grab Them Cakes” from The Wrestling Album. Yep, a song about grabbing butts. Kids like faces who sing about grabbing butts, I suppose.
22. Terry Funk
Though often the heel over his long tenure in the business, Terry Funk has been a hero at the most important points of his career. In 1975, he would begin a 14 month reign as NWA World Heavyweight Champion, eventually losing to Harley Race. Funk’s true coup would come over 20 years later in ECW. In the Main Event of the company’s first Pay Per View, Barely Legal 1997, Funk defeated the maligned Raven for the ECW World Heavyweight Title. This would not only affirm Funk’s place as a true legend in the business, but elevate the “rebel” promotion’s status in the eyes of more traditional wrestling fans. Funk has been both the rebel and the traditionalist, but found his greatest accomplishments as a hero.
In the heat of the Monday Night Wars, how do you fight against a company that has a superstar like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin? You build yourself a bigger star! That’s what WCW tried to do with Bill Goldberg. Despite not being a great technical wrestler, with his monster frame and ever-growing undefeated streak, Goldberg would crush most opponents within a minute or two, and the crowd loved it. Chants of “GOLD-BERG! GOLD-BERG! GOLD-BERG!” filled arenas when he would make his entrance. The fans didn’t mind that what he lacked in charisma he made up with intensity. And winning the WCW World Heavyweight Title from “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan ensured he was the man. In the grand scheme of things, his WCW run wasn’t all that long, but it made an impact at a time when WCW needed it.
20. Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka
Super- Super- Superfly! A true natural face, it was the WWF crowd that turned the Fijian wild man into a hero, and he never turned back. Perhaps best known for his feuds with “The Magnificent” Don Muraco and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Snuka enchanted crowds in nearly every major promotion of the last 30 years, and many independent promotions to boot. He was even part of Hulk Hogan’s short lived XWF in 2001. Snuka’s legendary leap from the top of the steel cage at Madison Square Garden has become not only one of the greatest moments in professional wrestling history, but one that’s legend has far exceeded its narrative importance.
19. Tommy Dreamer
While some guys straddled the fence of face and heel in ECW, the guy you could always count on to be a good guy was Tommy Dreamer. Extreme Championship Wrestling fans didn’t need a babyface, and originally the fans hated Dreamer for his “pretty boy” looks. After a great feud with The Sandman that had swerves that even smarter fans were starting to believe, his real rise to popularity came during his long feud with Raven. One of its biggest draws was that Tommy couldn’t ever get a pinfall victory over Raven (although eventually he did…when Raven left to go to WCW). Tommy showed his love and respect to its fans when he would yell, “E-C-FUCKING-W”, when attempting a big spot in a match. Until ECW’s dying day, Tommy never turned against the fans and did whatever he could to support the company, both in front of and behind the camera.
18. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat
“The Dragon” has always been a fan favorite. His deep arm-drags and pseudo martial arts style wowed the crowds of the 80s and showed that the “big men” didn’t have to dominate the pro wrestling scene. A multi-time champion in the NWA and WCW, even capturing their World Heavyweight Championship, a single match may define this legend: March 29, 1987, the Pontaic Silverdome – Wrestlemania III. In the longest match of the night, Ricky Steamboat defeated Randy Savage for the WWF Intercontinental Championship in what many consider to be the greatest match of all time. This match would not only overshadow Steamboat’s other accomplishments, but would make the Intercontinental Title nearly as popular as the World Title for years to come. Though Hogan will always be the hero of Wrestlemania III, fans know that Steamboat was not far behind.
17. Bret Hart
When you call yourself “The Best There Is, The Best There Was, And the Best There Ever Will Be”, you’d better either be a great face or an even greater heel, or your career is going nowhere. Luckily he was a great wrestler, because Bret Hart could pull off that moniker as a face. He wasn’t the greatest talker, nor did he have a great amount of charisma, but he could easily get under the skin of his opponent just by reminding them in promos and in interviews of how good of a wrestler he was. The fans believed it because Bret believed it, and he knew how to tell stories in the ring that got everyone behind him.
16. Antonino Rocca
How many wrestlers could throw Superman out of the ring? Even before the days of the WWWF, Vince McMahon Sr.’s Capitol Wrestling Corporation featured a hero of epic proportions, Antonino Rocca. Credited with bringing wrestling back to Madison Square Garden, the Italian born, Argentine raised Rocca quickly became one of the most adored stars in the Northeast. Athletic and quick, Rocca quickly garnered a huge Italian and Latino fan base and would become one of the WWWF’s lead attractions after its separation from the NWA in 1963. Shortly after this transition, Rocca left the United States for international territories, not returning until 1976. Within that year, he starred opposite a young Brooke Shields in Alice, Sweet Alice and took a role as announcer on WWWF broadcasts. He passed in 1977.
15. Randy Savage
With that raspy voice, strange hand movements, and just the general nonsense that would come out of his mouth half of the time, you could watch any Randy Savage interview or promo and be entertained, regardless of whether he was a good guy or a bad guy. Even though his feud with Honky Tonk Man right before it had him turning face already, forming The Mega Powers with Hulk Hogan made him a true good guy in the 80s, and that’s where the fans began to really get behind “The Macho Man.” His relationship with the lovely Miss Elizabeth didn’t hurt, either! Eventually after another heel run, this time as “The Macho King” with Sensational Sherri as his manager, Savage reunited with Elizabeth and instantly became loved again by the fans.
14. Jeff Hardy
Live for the moment. The Nu-Metal thumps, the crowd erupts and a Rainbow Haired Warrior makes his way to the ring. His arms swing wildly about as he makes his way down the ramp, a reflection of the chaos he brings with him. He mounts the turnbuckle and symbolically points two pistols to his head. This madness does not deflate his heroism, but rather enhances it. Jeff Hardy is worshiped by the crowd because he is willing to do anything for them…and often has. Aside from brief moments in his career (including an underrated Heel run in TNA), Hardy has spent most of his career as a true fan-favorite. This was no more evident than in his program facing CM Punk and his Straight Edge Society. Playing off Hardy’s very real drug problems, the crowd responded and supported their hero. The man who had sacrificed his body for them had gained their respect, despite his problems. Now that is something to be admired.
13. The Undertaker
For a long time The Undertaker was a “tweener,” which is a term to describe a character who is somewhere in between being a face and heel. With his dark side gimmick, he had a good face run that helped to build him as a top guy in the mid-‘90s. Fans loved Taker’s creepiness so much that he wouldn’t even have to say much in promos. Plus, having a veteran manager like Paul Bearer helped him incredibly. After a heel run with his Ministry and then The Corporate Ministry, he gave fans another reason to love him when he returned to the WWF after a hiatus with a new biker character in the middle of The Attitude Era. Mostly just returning for Wrestlemania now, it’s basically respect for his longevity and his legendary undefeated Wrestlemania streak that keep the fans in his corner. He’s earned it.
12. Dusty Rhodes
275 Pounds of blue eyed soul and the most interesting plumber’s son to ever walk the face of the Earth, daddy! Okay, sometimes that was closer to 300 Pounds, but you can never get enough soul. If there is a single placement on this list that shows how hard it is to write objectively about this subject, it is this one. Dusty Rhodes is an absolute legend, one of the best talkers the business has ever seen and an influence on the sport even to this day. His championship reigns are nearly meaningless compared to the talent he has worked with.
A true journeyman of the sport, Rhodes has been associated with and worked with nearly every major talent of the last 30 years. Dusty not only worked with the best, but with the guys who gave the best their foundations. An endearing underdog, Dusty Rhodes IS The American Dream.
11. Mil Mascaras
Mil Mascaras, despite now being a legend in the world of Lucha Libre and member of the WWE’s Hall of Fame, was originally a character who gained popularity in Mexican films. In the film Mil Mascaras (1966), the story was that a group of scientists adopted him from an orphanage and used him for scientific experiments that eventually give him superhuman strength, and hence he grows up and fights for justice. Makes sense. His popularity was on the rise as he continued to star in more action films, but he also started wrestling around the world. Thanks to high-flying moves and his penchant for giving beatings more than taking them (which some wrestlers have criticized over the years), he became a larger than life hero. Throughout his entire career “The Man of a Thousand Masks” never once turned heel.
10. John Cena
He’s the Hulk Hogan of a generation…just maybe not your generation. A member of the now legendary WWE Rookie class of 2002, Cena’s debut would foreshadow the rest of his career. In his first television appearance, he challenged and nearly bested multiple time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle. Not long after, he became a rapper, go figure. Though his Hip-Hop gimmick would initially garner boos, the crowd came to support the arrogant Cena. As his popularity grew, his cartoony persona faded into the more natural role he has settled into today.
With 11 WWE Titles and 2 World Titles under his belt, Cena is a guaranteed Hall of Famer with years of his career ahead of him. Though his dominance (and long tenure) as the premiere face in the WWE has been the butt of many jokes and the target of criticism, his popularity amongst the younger fans of the WWE is undeniable. Challenge him, and your time may very well be up.
9. The Ultimate Warrior
Face paint? Check. Intensity? Check. Heavy metal intro music? Check. Insane rambling promos? You’d better believe that’s a check! Those were their ingredients to the WWF’s “Build-A-Superstar” recipe that brought us the Ultimate Warrior. Fans instantly liked his look and his intensity, and the company looked at him as Hulk Hogan’s potential replacement. Fact: Warrior was the only person to pin Hogan cleanly for the WWF World Heavyweight Title. In a business where you don’t actually win anything or really beat anyone, that is saying something. Kids loved the Ultimate Warrior with his facepaint and tassles hanging off of his arms…he was like a superhero to them. And the older fans loved him because of what a powerhouse he was in the ring!
8. Rey Mysterio Jr.
Arguably the most popular luchador in the world today, Rey Mysterio Jr. is not only a global superstar but a true journeyman of the sport. Making his first U.S. appearances in ECW, Mysterio soon jumped to WCW where he immediately gained the admiration of the crowd. His high flying style was not only a welcome innovation to American audiences, but he performed with skill that outshone many of his luchador contemporaries. Though popular in WCW, like many he struggled to find a true spot on the roster and would suffer from half-baked creative decisions, none worse than losing his mask.
With his arrival in the WWE in 2002, this would all change. Back under the mask, the 168 pound Mysterio would take the World Heavyweight Title in 2006. This accolade not only defied a perceived glass ceiling for cruiserweights, but established Mysterio as “The Biggest Little Man” in the history of the business.
7. The Rock
Rocky Maivia started off in the WWF as a great example of the smiley, do-gooder that fans were used to, but at a time when they were starting to get sick of it. He’d come out smiling big, but get booed out of the building. So he turned heel, but had such great charisma and could cut such catchy promos that even when feuding with Steve Austin, fans began to like him. After turning on McMahon’s “Corporation”, Rock feuded with its members and, just like Austin, got the crowd behind him for it. Austin got injured and had to take time off, and that was the right time for Rock to take the reins and be the superstar the crowd wanted him to be. And even though he only comes back for Wrestlemania nowadays, “The People’s Champ” still lives up to his name.
6. Mick Foley
Mrs. Foley’s baby boy became the world champion. Competing under the personae of Cactus Jack, Dude Love, Mankind, and sometimes just as himself, Mick Foley eventually became one of the most beloved stars of the Attitude Era. Though actually more frequently a heel over his career, once the pretty boy Rock began to torture the underdog Mankind, the crowd truly never turned against him again. Foley’s hard work and brutal bumps earned the respect of the fans…the type of respect that can only be earned over a long career. In 1999, after over a decade in the business, Foley would claim the WWF World Championship. Foley’s blue collar upbringing and everyman looks were a perfect fit for Austin-era WWF and he might be the only face of the era who truly rivaled Austin in fan support. Without a doubt, it was Foley’s (said to be quite legitimate) crash through the roof of the “Hell in a Cell” cage that stands as his most memorable moment. Foley, now a Hall of Famer, frequently appears on WWE television in varied capacities, though it is his physical sacrifice that the crowd will always remember. Have a nice day.
5. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
After lingering as a mid-carder in WCW, followed by a short stint in ECW, Steve Austin finally found solid-footing in the WWF as a no-nonsense, trash-talking rebel. He was the right guy, in the right place, at the right time when the audience was tired of the smiley do-gooders and evil monsters they had become accustomed to. Drinking beer and flipping people off weren’t how superstars became popular, but good ol’ Stone Cold was the man who made the fans cheer for such actions. He would enter the arena and the crowds would explode with cheers and hold up their “Austin 3:16” signs.
The icing on the “Stone Cold” cake was doing what every man and woman wished they could at one time or another: beat up their boss. His feud with the evil owner of the WWF, “Mr. McMahon,” was one of the greatest rivalries in the history of wrestling, and not only helped the WWF start drawing record numbers of viewers, but also made Austin a pop culture icon. And his feud with The Rock helped put Rock on the wrestling map. He was the anti-hero fans deserved AND needed at the time. OH HELL YEAH!
4. El Santo
In late January of 1984, El Santo lifted his mask on Mexican national television, the only documented time he had ever done so. A week later he died of a heart attack. On June 26th of 1942, Rudy Guzman Huerta entered the ring as “El Santo” for the first time. Little did he know that he would go on to be the most popular luchador in history. Though an incomparable success in the ring, there are many aspects to the popularity and longevity of El Santo. One, a comic book based on the wrestler that ran without interruption from 1952 until 1987. Another, his film career which spanned from 1961 through 1982. El Santo bears the unique distinction of not only being a true star of the squared circle, but being a true fictional hero. Many have called the likes of Hulk Hogan and Rey Mysterio Jr. “superheroes”, El Santo may be the only one who actually deserves such a title.
To this day, El Santo projects are being developed and pitched to media outlets. Though there is a constant debate over which of the 3 biggest luchadors in history (Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras) is truly the greatest, it was El Santo that catalyzed the opportunities for the others and thus takes his place on the list.
Though he falls at Number 3 on this list, Sting might deserve to be Number 1. The greatest star to never grace a WWF/WWE ring, Sting felled monster after monster and was the only one who could be trusted to destroy the new World order (you know, before he joined the WolfPac). With an impressive physique and exceptional mic skills, all of the best wanted to work with The Stinger. A golden boy under any booker, Sting was allowed to hone his skills and persona through the 80s and 90s. Whether the Dark figure of the Nitro era, or the bleach blonde Californian of early years, Sting stood as a true hero to the masses for nearly his entire career.
The living embodiment of everything positive in the NWA/WCW, Sting could have been a major star in any promotion. Now an elder statesman of wrestling, he is still arguably the biggest draw in TNA Wrestling and has managed to sustain his relevance. Every year, the rumors begin of Sting finally making an appearance at Wrestlemania. While this has never happened, perhaps it should. He deserves it.
2. “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino
From the 1960’s-1980’s, Bruno was considered the best. He got into wrestling and quickly earned a name for himself in different territories because of his massive physique and incredible ability in the ring. An Italian immigrant, Bruno became a fan favorite in the New York area because of the large Italian population. Bruno would cut a promo, and then speak in Italian for his Italian fans. After being blackballed across the US for unknown reasons, he gave up on the sport. Bruno started wrestling around Canada, and became so popular there that United State promoters wanted to use him again. He came to work for the WWWF, run by Vincent K. McMahon, Sr., and held the WWWF Championship for a combined total of 12 years.
After Vince, Sr. died, Vincent K. McMahon, Jr. started to change the World Wrestling Federation into of more of a family-friendly, merchandising machine. Bruno became a color commentator, and even tag-teamed with his son Danny on a few occasions, but soon hated what the business had become so much that he left the company. Bruno was finally inducted into the WWE HOF this year at a ceremony in Madison Square Garden.
1. Hulk Hogan
If you bring up professional wrestling in a conversation, the image most likely to pop into your companion’s head is that of Hulk Hogan. Bright colors, bleached blonde hair and an impossible physique. Standing at 6′ 7” and floating between 300 and 320 pounds over his illustrious career, Hogan always appeared to be a true threat to whomever he faced in the squared circle. The key to understanding Hulk Hogan can be summed up in one word – “Mania.” When Hulkamania ran wild, it took Vince McMahon’s Wrestlemania from a supercard to something even greater. Hulkamania took professional wrestling from a niche form of entertainment to an empire building phenomenon.
Though the fans did eventually tire of Hogan, leading to the “Hollywood Hogan” persona and yet another successful run, Hulkamania never truly died. In 2002, nearly 20 years after his first world championship, something remarkable happened. The crowd at Wrestlemania XVIII decided that it was time for Hulk Hogan, their hero, to return. Slowly, over his match with The Rock, Hollywood began to return to his old ways. By the end, Hulkamania was once again running wild. Hulk Hogan may not be immortal, but Hulkamania…that’s another story. -Vinny
You can’t talk about 1980s wrestling without mentioning Hulk Hogan. How much more wholesome can someone get than by telling you to, “Train, say your prayers, and take your vitamins?” He was a superhero who stood up to every challenge and would always overcome insurmountable odds in the end. Isn’t that what superheroes do, and isn’t that what kids want to see? Hogan’s matches, although not very technical, always told the story of the villain beating Hulk badly until he “hulked up” and changed the course of the match by getting his second wind and finally beating his opponent…always to huge cheers. Then he would pose and get the audience to cheer even more. The man knew how to work a crowd.
Hulkamania was larger-than-life. No matter what stories you may have heard about Hogan over the years playing politics and never wanting to lose, he brought wrestling to the mainstream like never before. The 1980s were deservedly his, and wrestling wouldn’t be where it is today without him. – Jesse
* This article was originally published on August 13th, 2013. *